Who hasn’t suffered through a salty helping of food court fried rice in any suburban mall? These plates of overpriced, crunchy grease kernals leave so much to be desired. Am I off base here at all? I am convinced that heap of yellow with canned peas and carrots only mission in life is to fill us up rather than provide any taste. Then again I doubt many of us honestly expect a fine dining experience in between the Foot Locker and Banana Republic.
Luckily the antithesis of America’s fried rice bastardization sits tucked away in the expat area of Hanoi. In my former Tay Ho neighborhood an open storefront on Xuan Dieu Street squats nondescriptly next to Tracy’s with her delicious hamburgers, cold draft beer and satellite tv football games and offers up some truly Vietnamese fried rice for about $1.05 a serving. Blink while riding past it on a motorbike and you just might miss it. Look for the fat German Shephard lounging on the sidewalk next to the lady selling phone cards and chewing gum. Yes, I hear you sarcastically asking if that dog is destined for the fried rice wok! Trust me, I have the same evil thoughts, too. But so far she seems to be one of the luckiest animals alive in Vietnam as anything with fur or feathers seems to be fit for consumption around these parts.
As I take a seat in that grey zone in Vietnam that is neither sidewalk or street to wait and watch the traffic pass on by, my rice chef fires up a wok atop a cooking stand. It’s a wonder the joint hasn’t burned down the way flames shoot up to the top of the wok. Heaping spatulas of rice are tossed into the oil and stirred around and around along with some eggs. Halfway through the cooking process she slices her spatula through a chunk of butter and tosses about 2000 grams of cholesterol into the mix. Some chopped meats add even more “healthiness” to her creation and a green kimchee like vegetable becomes a part of the growing mound inside the wok. Of course a fried onion topping the same as what we find in green bean casserole is obligatory as well.
How can I even begin describing the Vietnamese flavors of street food cơm rang that are not even remotely close to what the strip mall Szechuan Palace back home craps out. A white pork meat with a reddish edge cut into small chunks tastes like liverwurst but has the texture of bologna. Some red colored meat product looking a lot like small pepperoni chunks adds some constrast to the neutral color of the rice along with a faint taste of cinnamony bacon and soy sauce. Asking around I learned this fatty red sausage originated in China and is known as lạp xường in Vietnam. Strange I know but hey, it somehow works.
Some salty kimchee vegetables add a pungent tartness to the sweet butter infused rice kernals and I must say this dish does have some sort of culinary fung shei going for it. Fiery hot sauce the consistency of tomato puree and of unknown origin and expiration date rounds out my order, and this styrofoam container of flavors foreign to western tongues is packed into a plastic takeaway bag.
I think this food shop’s interpretation of cơm rang is spot on for Vietnamese palates but might be considered a little rough around the edges for my fellow countrymen brought up on the sweet and sour pork combination plate. I’ve been coming back for almost two years now so evidently they are doing something right. Everytime I walk away with that plastic bag in hand I feel like I’ve hit the lottery being able to live over here and experience food I never dreamed existed.